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‘A supremely pragmatic actor’

US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao at their bilateral meeting last month in Seoul before the G20 summit . Photo Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images

It has become routine in much analysis of international affairs to position China as an opponent of the West (i.e. not just a competitor), and as prioritizing state sovereignty and non-interference in a state’s internal affairs above other international principles.

The one is also often suggested as the explanation for the other.

However, China’s changing role in Sudan over the past two decades demonstrates that neither can be taken as a given.

Despite a long-standing close relationship with Sudan and having strongly backing its repressive military campaigns, China has in recent years worked with the West-led international community to advance the peace process and the division of Africa’s largest state.

In short, despite past diplomatic and economic investment, China has shown it will join the West in ‘interfering’ in states’ internal affairs - if that is a way to ensure regional stability and its own future interests.

“It is a very important development that China is seriously considering going against its 50-year long policy of non-intervention," says Dru Gladney, an expert on Chinese minorities, of events in Sudan.

Historic partners

China and Sudan have had diplomatic relations since 1959.

China is today Sudan’s largest trade partner, accounting for about 50% of exports, while Sudan is China's third largest trade partner in Africa.

In the past 15 years, China has invested some $15 billion in Sudan. The China National Petroleum Corporation is the largest shareholder in the four oil consortiums in the country, holding stakes of 40-47% in three and 95% in the fourth.

China has also invested heavily in building oil pipelines connecting the oilfields in the south with oil terminal Port Sudan, and absorbs between 65% and 80% of Sudan’s daily oil production.

With an estimated 24,000 Chinese people working in over 100 companies engaged in infrastructure construction, technical cooperation and other investments in different parts of Sudan, China has a huge stake in the country.

These Chinese links grew alongside Arab-dominated Sudan’s devastating war to prevent South Sudan’s secession (as well as its genocidal campaign in Darfur).

Khartoum’s generation-long efforts to crush South Sudan’s liberation struggle, led by the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, killed two million people and drove four million from their homes.

Chinese cooperation with Sudan over its rebellious south began in the 1970s when Beijing started agriculture training, building bridges and roads and sending doctors to the southern cities of Juba and Wau.

Strongest ally

By the early 2000s while the SPLM attacked the oil installations, seeking to deprive Khartoum of funds for war, China had become Sudan’s largest arms supplier.

And amid Khartoum’s atrocities against the South Sudanese and the people of Darfur, from its seat on the UN Security Council, China was also long Sudan's chief diplomatic ally.

China repeatedly saw off resolutions critical of Sudan and watered down those international sanctions that couldn’t be stopped.

The Washington Post noted in an analysis in 2004:

“China's relationship with Sudan has become particularly deep, demonstrating that China's commercial relations are intensifying human rights concerns outside its borders while beginning to clash with US policies and interests.”

(It is worth recalling Sudan gave refuge to Osama Bin Laden in 1994/5, and in 1998, after terrorist attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the Clinton administration attacked alleged terrorist training camps in Sudan with a barrage of 70 cruise missiles).

The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between Khartoum and the SPLM brokered by the international community ended the fighting, but crucially put off the question of self-determination and territorial integrity for ten years, to be decided in the week-long referendum which concluded this weekend.

Whilst according to the deal, both sides were to govern the peace together, the SPLM was obliged to encourage unity between North and South.

Little reason here why China would not support the CPA, even at a time Sudan had become, as the Washington Post noted, China's largest overseas oil project.


However, although China has a history of espousing non-interference in states’ domestic matters, the Asian giant pointedly began building relations with South Sudan long before this week’s referendum.

(See Al-Jazeera’s extensive report on this here.)

China established a consulate in the southern capital of Juba in 2008 (and appointed an Ambassador – its former envoy to Bahrain - last November).

Last October, Chinese delegation also visited Juba where they held meetings with the SPLM, while SLPM officials have officially visited Beijing.

And China already has numerous projects in the South, developed in conjunction with the SPLM.

"China has implemented various projects in the south and plans more, like building universities, hospitals ... and water projects," Ian Taylor, a professor of international relations at the University of St. Andrews, told Al Jazeera.

In turn, the South Sudanese have assured China that its investments will be protected if they secede from the north.

"We have given assurances to the Chinese leadership … to protect Chinese investments in southern Sudan, and are desirous to see more investment in the future," Pagan Amum, the secretary general of the SPLM, told Al-Jazeera.

Seeking stability

In short, rather than being dragged along by international efforts to produce peace and stability, China has in practice increasingly been an important partner of the West in Sudan.

Few international developments, after all, challenge the principle of sovereignty and territorial integrity than the imminent division of Africa’s largest state.

In recent years China openly began expressed its support not only for the referendum, but for international action to ensure stability in the region.

Chinese troops joined international peacekeepers in Sudan's Darfur region.

(This includes, as discussed below, international action over Darfur, though to a more limited extent; for example, China is not supporting - though not actively resisting - the International Criminal Court pursuit of Sudan’s President Omar Al-Bashir over genocide and war crimes in the region.)

"No one would benefit from chaos of Sudan. Maintaining peace and stability of the Africa's largest country should be a consensus and common goal of both sides of Sudan and the international community," Chinese ambassador to Sudan, Li Chengwen, told Xinhua this month.

"China's concern over the referendum conforms to the interest of the international community,” he explained. “We sincerely hope permanent peace can be achieved in Sudan."

In the run up to the referendum, Chinese Foreign Ministry's spokesman told reporters: "China hopes the referendum will be held in an atmosphere of justice, freedom, transparency and peace,"

"China will work with the international community and continuously play a positive and constructive role in promoting peace, stability and development in Sudan and this region at large," he added.

Darfur’s ‘internal conflict’

Back in 2004, even as Sudan unleashed a genocidal campaign in Darfur, China defended Khartoum from international action, explaining its position with the logic: “Business is business. We try to separate politics from business.”

Chinese-made jets in Darfur in 2007 (Sudan Tribune)

In 2007 Chinese-made jets supplied in violation of an international arms embargo were photographed deployed in Darfur. In early 2008, the BBC reported further Chinese support for Sudan's war effort there.

However, that year China began contributing to US-led international action over Darfur, pushing Sudan to cease opposing international peacekeepers, and to change its policies.

Last month, China expressed its support for a peaceful and comprehensive settlement of Darfur’s conflict, and pointedly called for efforts to remove its root causes.

This is what China also said:

"Currently, it is very important to maintain security and stability in Darfur."

“It is hoped that all parties to the Darfur conflict can solve their differences in a peaceful manner through political dialogue, and reconciliation should be achieved and violence avoided."

"Achieving [a] substantial result at an early date of the Darfur peace process and reaching a comprehensive political agreement represents a basic guarantee for long-term peace and stability in Darfur."

"Without a robust political process, there would be no peace and stability in Darfur, neither would there be the protection of civilians, humanitarian assistance, economic recovery and reconstruction."

"We will continue to work with the international community to contribute to the peace, stability and development in Sudan."

(Compare this with China's official position in 2008.)

Interests and Ideology

Notably, China’s cooperation over Darfur began during the hawkish Bush administration in Washington. (See this State Department blog entry).

And Beijing’s support for the referendum in South Sudan with its foregone conclusion of secession, is attributed to an intense US diplomatic push, personally led by President Barack Obama, in which China was a top target.

"We share an interest with China in a stable Sudan," a US official told AFP this month. "It is absolutely not in their economic or political interest to see Sudan implode or return to massive widespread civil conflict."

In other words, because of (rather than 'despite') its growing interests, China has shown itself ready to join international involvement in other states’ ‘internal affairs’, analysts say.

“Development and national self-interest is clearly taking precedence over ideology in China today," Prof. Gladney says.

This includes its long-held stance on secession. China has calculated that it can suppress its own separatists while courting separatists in Sudan, he adds.

"[The Chinese] are beginning to realise that a strict 'non-interference' policy is political and diplomatic nonsense,” says Richard Dowden, director of the Royal African Society.

Or, as Prof. Ian Taylor puts it, when it comes to pursuing its interests, “Beijing is a supremely pragmatic actor.”

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